They Call Me Mellow Yellow
Our last afternoon in Sicily, we were walking back toward the Yak-O-tel after a day at the beaches of Giardini Naxos and Letojanni (finally! sun!) and talking, as one will, about the food we’d miss once we were once again ensconced in the “is it is or is it ain’t Spring” of Toscana.
We’d sampled the wares at just about every “arancineria” on Lipari and had only been really satisfied (in that close-your-eyes-and-hum kind of way) on a couple of occasions.
(But there’s a place in Acitrezza that I know….) For cannoli and granita, the gold standard remained the Pasticceria Santo Puglia in Riposto. (In fact, if you haven’t tasted granita at the Pasticceria Santo Puglia in Riposto, you’ve never tasted granita. No, you haven’t. Sorry.)
And, of course, we talked about limoncello. Specifically, about whether we could make some. We’d been drawn–to the point of contemplating petty larceny–to the sprawling, freighted lemon trees on the grounds of the Villa Diana on Lipari, and the main reason we didn’t make off with a bag full of the enormous, cobble-skinned lemons growing outside our window is that we didn’t want to drag 5 kilos of fruit around with us for three days. Of course, the proprietors would probably have given us lemons if we had asked; that would have been the least they could do.
(I’d been on the “let’s make limoncello” kick before. The recipe, quite a simple one, actually, calls for 95% grain alcohol, however, which cannot be sold legally in California, so I waited until the summer of 2004 when I went to visit friends in New Mexico. There, alcohol of every variety is not only available but highly encouraged. I bought two bottles of firewater at the very nice wine and liquor store on University Avenue in Albuquerque, cushioned them carefully in bubble wrap and dirty underwear, and stowed them in my luggage for the trip home. Sadly, they never made it. The very concerned gentlemen of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA = “Try and Stop us, Asshole!”) took both bottles and left a nice, preprinted note in their place, admonishing me for having tried to carry an “incendiary device” on the plane. The fact that someone had to paw through my stanky underthings to get at my alcohol was little consolation.)
But then we were in Sicily again and meandering back from the train station in Giarre, and we came upon a tiny storefront with a great, gleaming heap of lemons on the stand outside, just like the ones we’d seen on Lipari. No one could have resisted. We started choosing lemons, and the vendor stopped to chat. He saw that we were being very selective and asked, “What are you going to make with them?”
“We’re going to try to make limoncello,” I said.
“No,” he said, in that great Italian way, with the “o” clipped and definitive, a single syllable that means not only “no” but “over my dead body.” The lemons we were pawing weren’t limoncello lemons.
“Aspettate,” he said, and he went to his car and pulled out another crate of lemons with thinner, smoother skins. “These are for limoncello,” he said. “Take as many as you want.”
“Va bene,” we said, and started filling a sack. The vendor went into the tiny room in the back of his store and returned with a bottle of limoncello that he’d made from his lemons. “Vedete? This is how it turns out.” And he kissed the tips of his fingers.
When we’d made our choices, I asked how much we owed him. He shook his head. “No, no. I said take as many as you want. Today, no one pays for lemons.” Mauro and I looked at each other. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Ma certo!” and he sent us on our way.
Back in Livorno, I carefully sbucciato the lemons (the yellow part only, as little of the white part as possible) with a potato peeler and stuck the peels in old wine bottles that I’d halfway filled with 95% alcohol (purchased at the store down the street, no TSA and no California laws). Two weeks later, we filtered the alcohol and lemon essence, mixed in the syrup that I’d pre-made (sugar and water boiled together), and funneled everything into another set of wine bottles so it could “mellow” a bit longer.
Some recipes say you have to let the limoncello “age” for another 30 days at that point, but Mauro (and he’s a chemist) says it makes no real difference, because nothing new is actually happening chemically at that point. Which means we sampled it, finally, after only a week.
I wish I could post a photo that would tell you how ambrosial, marvelous, delicious, fabulous, how utterly perfect our limoncello is. It is a miracle of nature. It tastes clean. It tastes like the sun. It tastes like what it feels like when something turns out to be exactly what you always hoped it would.